January 16, 2013

Self-Esteem High, Learning Not So Much

Here's a statistic that should make every college teacher cringe.  From 1976 to 2010, the rate of high school students graduating with an "A" grade-point average doubled.  They didn't increase their work load, and their test scores didn't rise correspondingly, but their teachers gave them the highest grade possible again and again.

The impact of grade inflation isn't more learning and more effort.  Instead, it's higher self-evaluation.  That's the conclusion of psychologist Jean Twenge, who with various collaborators over the years has studied the attitudes and outlooks of Generation Y and concluded that young people are suffering from a narcissism epidemic.  Her findings are summarized in an article in this month's issue of Teaching of Psychology. Examining data from the American Freshman Survey over several decade's time, Twenge finds that

entering college students are increasingly likely to believe that they are above average in attributes such as academic ability, writing ability, intellectual self-confidence, and drive to achieve.

Objective measures of their abilities are pretty much flat, but their estimation of those abilities keeps going up.  In 1965, about 30 percent of respondents stated that they are "above average" in writing, while recent numbers have reached nearly 50 percent (even though remediation course work for entering students keeps going up).  From 1976 to 2000, twice as many seniors claimed that they will earn a graduate degree, even though the number of individuals who did so held steady at nine percent.  Their drive to achieve certainly isn't reflected in the amount of homework they complete, which has actually dropped significantly since the 1960s.  By 2006, too, two-thirds of respondents stated when they enter the workplace they will perform among the top 20 percent of their colleagues.

What this means for college teachers is that if they don't go along with the grade inflation, they end up shocking their first-year students.  The freshmen have been told repeatedly that they are superior, so when the college teacher gives them a middling grade, they don't understand.  The mismatch of expectation and talent has been reinforced up until they got that first paper in freshman comp with red markings all over it, and it doesn't make sense. 

The false self-assessment adds a whole new element to freshman instruction.  Teachers not only have to give students an honest appraisal, but they have to overcome the self-esteem, the expectations, the unreality of their students as well.  Or, of course, they could just go with the flow and save themselves the trouble of coping with upset 18-year-olds.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.